I sing, therefore I am. What we are missing when we use our voice only to speak

By Stephan Ronner, June 2013

The human voice is designed both for singing and speaking. In a time which is fixated on bald information, we give precedence to spoken communication. But the emotional and spiritual dimensions of human existence are transmitted in a very special way through the singing voice.

© Charlotte Fischer

Human beings express themselves directly through their voice. They use it to draw attention to themselves and their needs, express their feelings of wellbeing or indisposition, react to their surroundings and experiment with all kinds of things. The range of children’s expressive possibilities is rich and varied: the greater the spectrum of human stimuli in the environment of the child, the more the repertoire of his or her expressive abilities grows. That includes not just verbal but also emotional expressive capacities of a non-verbal kind: singing. In singing, human beings express themselves more deeply and immediately than they are able to do in speech. When we look at the growing person as the unique individuality which shines through independently of genes and socialisation, an aspect of his or her being opens up which goes beyond what can be explained and expressed in language and which never ceases to amaze us. The inexpressible finds its spontaneous expression in non-verbal utterances and und comes to appearance “musically” in spontaneous singing or humming. 

Through life with a song

In order for children to express themselves through singing, they require an active, stimulating environment at home and in kindergarten. Particular attention should be paid to this aspect in the move from kindergarten to school: does the child bring spontaneous expressive powers through his or her singing voice, does he or she have a small repertoire of songs which he or she can really sing – beyond the first verse?

The childhood researcher Donata Elschenbroich has revealed an interesting panorama of a seven-year-old’s knowledge of the world. It includes: finding one’s own voice, singing one’s own name, being able to imitate bird song and animal noises, singing a round – an experience of deliberate confusion and order – initiating a dialogue on instruments (duet), listening to and setting off an echo. Just think back to when you were that age!

From the one to the many voices

The early years of school still permit an experience of inwardly fulfilled true unison. The intrinsic shape of the tunes forms a supportive unity with the natural rhythm of the pictorial elements. They possess an expressiveness which is beyond any words.

Unison in lower school leads over into the first forays into the fascinating world of polyphony in middle school: the single voice is joined by an autonomous second voice and the result is a third thing: a relationship between sounds, an interval, consonance and dissonance, tension and resolution. Alongside this, different types of polyphony open up when singing rounds. In this way a wide range of types of song, movement and style creates a solid basis, before the children’s voices develop into male and female voices, for subsequently approaching and learning to understand the historical dimensions and aspects of world music from the inside.

Maturing in song

The voice of each child changes fundamentally in the course of their school career. The children’s voices, which still have a universal kind of sound, become individualised and are formed in accordance with each child’s character. Nothing helps to master these transformations with their reefs and obstacles as successfully as natural, everyday singing. Unfortunately that often falls by the wayside with the result that we no longer dare to sing.

Such obstacles include, not least, the behavioural code of young people in puberty which says that singing is “uncool”. “Coolness” puts a break on our natural expressive behaviour through singing – it is a shyness, then, to express ourselves intimately in front of others and reveal something of our inner life without protection. Those who sing all the same and, in that sense, assert themselves by refusing to conform, acquire personal autonomy and expressiveness which promotes strength of character and courage particularly with regard to social activity.

In upper school, pupils gradually begin to develop elements of musical judgement together with musical skills. This must be consistently established and developed from when children start in school (or even better from before then) – for which the best method is a good singing culture. The reflective element must not be missing either: learning to characterise what something sounds like, what effect it has, thus training our observation of the pure manifestation, the individual phenomena which together produce the effect which as a totality is called music. Developing mature  musical judgement in this sense is one of the noble goals of music education going far beyond purely exam-oriented knowledge and increasingly gaining in importance as an ability which is relevant for life.

Refreshing into old age

The start of school is the best possible time: here a foundation can still be laid for the ability to express ourselves in singing. If we observe a number of typical developmental characteristics, a deep-seated expressive ability of human beings can be produced as if my magic out of an initially largely still spontaneous joyful activity, from which in turn a sustained potential can develop which turns into a lifelong ability. This comprises, for example, extended perceptual capacities in social interaction, empathy, the ability to fit in, communicative skills, enthusiasm, creativity and, not least, flexibility.

It is always surprising in the elderly how singing makes them much more directly present and joyful even when speech and memory are already fading: the songs learned in childhood and youth rise up from the depths of a long life and appear amazingly well preserved and active. They are like something that bubbles along in the substrate of our biography like clear spring water for the whole of life, retaining their freshness to the end – while consciousness may already be clouded.

The secret of songs

So what is singing about? There is, of course, the mood, the groove, the atmosphere which comes with a song or which arises when we sing to ourselves. Each generation has its songs and moods which go with the territory, which are simply there, which do not even have to be learnt, which it simply knows. Let’s call them jetsam, the songs which belong to each generation. And then we have the Christmas songs and songs for the festivals, the songs we sing on trips, the so-called children’s songs (to calm them and help them get to sleep) and the songs sung in school and clubs.

What makes a good song? A thoroughly effective element – apart from the mood each song creates – is an expressive tune which says something in its own right, possesses a contour of its own and is more than just a vehicle for the text. The character of a tune, its musical gesture, is itself a precise nonverbal statement and plays an important role in developing our own expressiveness, a kind of emotional vocabulary.

But, not least, it is also the texts. What is actually being sung, what does the text say, what does it express? In this regard we may we experience the odd surprise – positively about the poetry of a verse, its charm and depth, its validity; less positively perhaps about the banalities we are prepared to accept, the formulaic nature of some songs. If we look at the quality of some texts we sometimes require a high degree of tolerance and forbearance to still accept a song as such.

But is that really so important? Is it not the song as a whole which is important and is the text not perhaps an element we can ignore if we want? The individual character of a melody and the quality of a text are closely interrelated and cannot be separated. Sometimes it is a mystery why a song, however strange, becomes very popular while another one of high quality never manages to achieve the same success.

But the most important thing is that we ourselves sing every day! The fact that in doing so we create a bond with the mood and content of the song which can accompany us throughout life – sometimes unconsciously – should cause us also always to think about the quality of the text. Being human includes the ability to express ourselves in music and words. Taking part ourselves is the key: I sing, therefore I am!

About the author: Stephan Ronner is professor of music and music education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.